In the opening scene of a special episode of Neo-Noir, guest-costar Black Guy kills the fat man in the lime-green suit because he needs killing.
At the same time, across town, a city really, concrete jungle, asphalt jumble, split-screen bottom right (the split jagged and running bottom left to top right), guest-costar Bald Guy kills the fat man in the lime-green suit because he too has it coming.
That’s right. Black Guy and Bald Guy kill the fat man in two different sites at exactly the same time (weird! so Neo-Noir!) just to watch him die. Twice.
I’m a bad man, they say in a layered voice-over, handy with a gun or a knife, even a cord when I’m working up close and blood’s a bad idea. I’m what cops call the dubious but skilled sort, one who skirts the law for profit, who has no patience or respect for bureaucracy.
Black Guy and Bald Guy spit on their respective sidewalks at this point for emphasis. I make a good living with my wits, but my hands and the tools they were made for are part of it.
While their voice-overs are saying the same words on the same screen, they’re saying them in such a way that you hear the voices separately. When Bald Guy clears his voice between “wits” and “but,” you’re surprised to find you were wrong about which voice-over belonged to which actor.
Not to mention that as they’re talking and the camera frames the similar backgrounds, you begin to zero in on slight differences in the split frames. Bald Guy’s sidewalk, for instance, is cracked and a food wrapper catches on the fat man’s extended arm. Black Guy’s sidewalk is cobblestone that looks shiny as a new penny and provides a striking contrast to the lime green of the fat man’s suit.
What you also notice is that although Black Guy’s fat man and Bald Guy’s fat man appear to be the same guy, they’re not. They got out of the same car in the same way at the same time, yes. They tugged at the ass of their pants the same, they walked the same, they jiggled the same.
What was weird at first, that the same guy could be in two different locations at the same time and get killed in the same way, is now replaced with a new weird that shoots a buzz up the back of your neck.
Guys like me keep cops in business, the Black Guy and Bald Guy voice-overs say. And do their jobs for them. That doesn’t mean I’m some dark saint, what dull professors and stupid Hollywood producers call an anti-hero. Your basic black hat with a heart of gold.
The Bald Guy voice said both “dark” and “black.” You know he did. You know also without thinking about it that those two words mean different things when Black Guy and Bald Guy say them. Buzzzzz.
The guy I killed was a guy the cops wanted killed.
You love Neo-Noir voice-over and all the dialogue. You wish you talked like that. You wish you had a job that encouraged the sort of activities that would make your voice-over seem natural and the language a part of you even if you’re too cool out on the street to do the talking yourself.
That the cops wanted him killed didn’t mean they were going to look the other way. Oh, no.
Black Guy and Bald Guy lick the cigarettes they’ve been rolling and put them in their mouths.
In fact, Black Guy and Bald Guy voice-overs give way to the voices of the actors before you, who say after a long drag and right through the smoke that clears in almost exactly the same way on each side of the jagged line dividing them, the cops set the whole thing up, made it happen like clockwork, watched what they could from identical parked vans.
Tits, Black Guy says. Nothing worse than a bad guy with tits, Bald Guy says, it seems, in response.
That’s when it strikes you. The arms extended on Bald Guy’s cracked sidewalk and Black Guy’s shiny cobblestone, not a foot from the feet of Black Guy and Bald Guy, are not close to being the same arms.
His name, Black Guy laughs, is John Wayne. And, believe it or not, he’s played bit parts in a few films. Not that John Wayne, Bald Guy chuckles, though we’d give it to him too if he deserved it. Oh, Black Guy says, I think the Duke deserves it all right. They laugh pretty hard at that one.
While they’re laughing, you can see what you should have seen before. One of the arms is black, the other white. Actually the wrists and hands are all you can see.
I got a sister who went to college, Black Guy and Bald Guy say together. If she were here (you’re pretty sure Bald Guy said “was,” as in “was here”), she would say my turning his chest into tits barely masks my contempt for women. Maybe she’s right, they say. I got contempt for her and she’s a woman.
Hell, I got enough contempt, Black Guy and Bald Guy spit, to blanket Tinseltown in six feet of wool.
The arm at the feet of Black Guy is white.
I killed John Tits Wayne, part-time actor, full-time bad guy, because he did a bad thing to a person who didn’t deserve it. Call me a sucker, Black Guy says at the same time Bald Guy’s saying something else, but that girl was an angel. Even if she was a cop’s sister. Even if her brother was a bad cop. But ain’t they all? Or soon will be. She loved her brother and it broke her heart.
I killed Tits, Bald Guy says at the same time Black Guy’s saying something else and you see Bald Guy’s scuffed black boot toeing his dead man’s black hand, not because he’s a bad guy who killed a cop but because he’s a bad guy who broke an angel’s heart. I killed Tits because the world’s a bad place with no happy angel any longer in it. Cops can do with me what they want.
Cops can do with me what they want, Black Guy says after Bald Guy says it.
The arms, how could you have missed it, are different. One black, one white. Cool to the nth. You love Neo-Noir because of arty shit like this.
Our sister can express her contempt in late-night phone calls.
Our? Shit buzzes the back of your neck it’s so deep.
But we’re not changing, they say as they turn to face the camera, look down at the cigarettes they’ve just dropped, and step on them.
Because nobody changes, they say, except maybe for the worse.
Way of the world, they say as the credits run over the jagged line.
Steve Davenport is the author of Uncontainable Noise (poetry) and two chapbooks, Murder on Gasoline Lake (an essay) and Nine Poems and Three Fictions (available free on-line and in The Literary Review’s Summer 2008 chapbook issue). Most recently he has a story in The Southern Review and an essay in Northwest Review.